Donnie Yen pushed two of the fastest hands in the world into wet cement outside of the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood on a cold November morning, becoming the 298th person since 1927 to have his prints immortalized alongside some of the biggest names in show business.
But Yen, who stars as blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe in Disney’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” can still stand on Hollywood Boulevard and get the type of curious looks passersby give when they know they’re looking at someone famous but can’t quite place the face — although that probably won’t be the case much longer. Not only does he have a prominent role in what’s likely to be one of the biggest films of the year, it’s hard to imagine anyone better poised to cash in on the nexus of China and Hollywood than an honest-to-goodness action star with a devoted fan base who speaks the two languages of the contemporary movie industry.
Disney took note as well, sending big guns like studio head Alan Horn and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy — who introduced Yen — to the handprint ceremony. Disney CEO Bob Iger makes regular cross-Pacific jaunts and opened Shanghai Disneyland Park in June.
Yen, a bona fide A-lister in China and Hong Kong, is already receiving rave reviews from people who have seen part of the film for his performance in “Rogue One,” which comes out on Dec. 16. Soon after, he’ll star opposite Vin Diesel as the main villain, Xiang, in Paramount’s “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” which hits theaters in January. And after that, who knows — but as China’s box office prepares to pass the U.S. as the world’s largest by the end of the decade, and as studios battle to win that audience over — don’t expect Yen to fade from the scene.
This isn’t Yen’s first time working on American movies. He was the martial arts choreographer for 2000’s “Highlander: Endgame” and 2002’s “Blade II,” appearing in both of those films as an actor, as well. He also starred opposite Jackie Chan in 2003’s “Shanghai Knights.” However, “Star Wars” is something else entirely.
“The impact is hitting me now,” Yen told TheWrap. “Especially when you see all the publicity going on around the world and all the marketing campaigns. Everybody, my friends, people out of nowhere, all of a sudden they express what a big ‘Star Wars’ fan they are and asking me to take them to the premiere.”
The most recent “Star Wars” movie, last year’s “The Force Awakens,” was a global smash hit in basically every market except China, where it grossed about the same as “Interstellar” – despite “Force Awakens” achieving a worldwide box office more than three times the size of “Interstellar.” That was despite a marketing campaign that included Stormtroopers on the Great Wall and a custom music video from Chinese pop star Lu Han.
Yen and compatriot Jiang Wen are being counted on to help “Rogue One” deliver the goods, and Yen said his prominent role in the film should help bring fans of his work into the “Star Wars” fold.
“They will see a lot of Donnie Yen in ‘Rogue One,’ so they will be very happy,” he said.
The magic of Hollywood can make almost anyone look like a badass, but Yen, the son of a martial arts teacher mother and newspaper editor father who spent part of his childhood in Boston, is the real thing. Widely regarded as one of the premier martial artists in Hong Kong cinema, he has won multiple championships in wushu, a form of Chinese martial arts. There’s also a possibly apocryphal story that Yen beat down eight gang members who were threatening his then-girlfriend in a nightclub, sending some of them to the hospital. Yen told Jetset magazine that episode was “blown out of proportion.”
But Yen doesn’t want to be known as just a fighter, but a well-rounded leading man.
“I think the ultimate for an action star is when people recognize you not as an action star, but rather as a good actor,” he said.
And to do that, he said, requires consistently good performances, no small feat for an actor with some 70 credits.
“It never stops,” Yen said. “You have to always do good work to show that you can do it.”
Yen made his movie debut in the 1984 Hong Kong film “Drunken Tai Chi” and started turning heads with his portrayal of Nap-lan Yun-seut in 1992’s “Once Upon a Time in China II.” He landed his iconic role as the title character in 2008’s “Ip Man,” based on Wing Chun grandmaster — and Bruce Lee’s teacher — Yip Man. He reprised that role in 2010’s “Ip Man 2” and last year’s “Ip Man 3,” where Yen starred opposite boxing legend Mike Tyson – and accidentally broke the champ’s finger during a fight scene.
And while he remains one of the biggest stars in Asian film, Yen is leaving the door open for more Hollywood projects. At a time when the Chinese audience has never been more important to big studios, his biography, charisma and proven fan base has Yen sitting pretty.
“It really depends,” he said, asked if he’s looking at more English-language roles. “I look for challenges in every one of my films. It really depends on the role and the story.”
As Yen was wrapping up the last of his media interviews outside the theater and the plastic chairs set up for the ceremony had long since been stacked and put away, a bus parked nearby. About a dozen tourists walked out and extended their selfie sticks toward what was left of the commotion to try to get a better angle, but the show was over. They may have missed the action, but Yen’s timing is perfect.